While planning a Namibian safari for my family this year, I knew that climbing the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei would provide us with some fairly dramatic vistas as well as an untried activity to undertake — very important when keeping quick-to-bore teenagers entertained. It was a must visit. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the beauty of the desert surrounding the dunes, whose colors and contrasts varied dramatically throughout the day, depending on the light of the sun: terracotta hues at sunrise to drab khaki shades at midday, and concluding with a brilliant amber rinse at sunset.
Sossusvlei is south of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. It is a 5-6 hour drive or a one-hour prop-plane flight from Windhoek. We chose the latter via Wilderness Air, and never regretted that decision — the scenery along the way was spectacular.
After landing, we were introduced to our guide Mam-cee from Little Kulala, our home for the next two days. Mam-cee is an absolute delight — warm, welcoming, and a great sense of humor. While we had great guides at each camp, Mam-cee remained our absolute favorite of the entire trip.
Little Kulala is a gorgeous luxury camp situated adjacent to the national park containing the famous dunes. While not actually in the park, the retreat has a private entrance gate which gives you a head up to enter at sunrise compared to the masses lined up at the public gate.
Our safari agent, Piper and Heath Travel (see more about them at the end of this post), provided us with two accommodation options for this area — Little Kulala or Sossus Dune Lodge. Little Kulala is the more luxurious of the two, BUT Sossus Dune Lodge is located inside the park which allows one to trek the dunes significantly earlier than those waiting for the sunrise opening time at the gates — tempting information for an amateur photographer. Nevertheless, we were happy with our decision to stay at Little Lulala. I LOVED it’s safari-chic style, AND each adobe thatched-roof bungalow included a roof-deck bed for star-gazing. It was this star-peeping bed that clinched the deal for us.
Our family occupied two neighboring air-conditioned bungalows, which included both indoor and outdoor showers and a large partially shaded lower deck with private plunge pool. Both the rooftop and inside bed include soft white linens and mosquito netting. I loved sleeping on the roof the first night, though I found it was almost too overwhelming to actually sleep — falling stars could be seen almost every couple of minutes, or so it seemed. I didn’t want to miss a single minute with my eyes closed!
The main lodge at Little Kulala is an organically -shaped large thatched building, with a wrap-around terrace and fantastic view of a busy watering hole. We spied oryx, ostrich, and springbok there throughout our stay. Meals fit for a gourmet are taken outside weather permitting, or inside by the warmth of the fireplace. The lodge also holds a lovely library — accessed via a cool twisting open staircase — complete with games, books, and plenty of spots to lounge. I almost wished we’d had one more day here just to utilize a lazy afternoon up there. Service was fantastic, and all the staff we encountered were extremely warm and gracious.
There are several options for a dune hike. We chose Big Daddy because I wanted to photograph the Deadvlei afterward — this is a dried up lake between dunes which has many dead acacia trees providing a spectacular landscape of contrasts in the morning light. Who knew dead trees could be so beautiful, but they are beyond question! FYI, Deadvlei can be easily accessed without trekking Big Daddy dune, but the trek is totally worth the time and effort.
We arrived at the gate to the park before sunrise — Mam-cee got us first in line in her true awesome fashion. We all wore sweatshirts or fleeces as it’s quite chilly here at night and early morning. She used the windshield as her chalkboard to school us on the dunes and park. After, we jumped out of the truck to get some fantastic shots of the sun peaking over the distant hills.
After a 20 minute drive, we arrived at our destination. Big Daddy is the tallest dune in the Sossusvlei area. Most people climb Dune 45, which is an easier climb, but I recommend doing Big Daddy — it’s less crowded and gets you to Deadvlei quicker.
Mam-cee encouraged us to try trekking the dune in bare feet, and it was such a fantastic sensation! The sand is incredibly soft, dry, and cool in the early morning. It was also easier than with shoes. To keep my hands free to photograph, I just tied my hiking boots to my day pack. We stopped before the apex on a high plateau, in order to fly our drone before the masses arrived. None of us felt compelled to reach the top as we were already incredibly high with magnificent views.
We opted for a short cut down to Deadvlei below us by walk/running down the incredibly steep hillside. It doesn’t look so steep from my photographs but note how small the figures are at the top to get a sense of it. It was much easier than I expected, and the boys enjoyed running down it, though they wished they’d had a way to slide down instead.
I relished my time photographing the trees in Deadvlei. It is such a strange, other-worldly landscape, and like no place I’ve ever seen before. Blackened skeleton-like saplings set on arid, bleach-white earth, surrounded by giant rust-colored dunes, and garnished with a vivid sky-blue canopy above. My older son enjoyed sitting in the shade, piloting the drone up above, while Miles and I happily flitted from one tree to the next, capturing each one on digital film. We weren’t alone, though it might look so from my photographs — we were surrounded by 100+paparazzi-like tourists. There is something to be said for overnighting within the park in order to experience the dunes in early morning solitude.
- Hot-air ballooning — We did not do this as we weren’t staying long enough to fit this in. But it was a beautiful sight to see them near our lodge at sunrise! I did speak to a traveler at one of our other camps who had done this — she was actually disappointed as she imagined they would fly over the dunes, but they only flew outside of the national park.
- Quad bikes — This is one activity offered by Little Kulala. Mam-cee planned to take us on a nature walk one afternoon, but the boys asked if we could do this instead. They loved it; I was less enthused as my left leg felt on fire from the heat of the engine (the manual quads didn’t seem to have the same issue, by the way.) But the scenery along the way truly was fantastic and I knew the boys were in adrenaline-seeker heaven, so it was worth the pain! Also, we got some great footage of oryx at sunset with the drone.
- Sesriem Canyon — Interesting canyon to explore set within the national park. Worth a quick stop and walk-around.
To see a short video with drone footage of our time spent in Sossusvlie, click here.
Piper and Heath Travel made all of our arrangements in Namibia, so I’d like to give them a BIG shout-out. I’ve never employed a travel agency for ANY expedition but found the planning for this journey fairly challenging. After contacting Wilderness Safaris to inquire about their camps and flights in Namibia, I was informed that they conduct business solely through safari agencies. They then connected me with Chris Liebenberg and Mark Forman of Piper and Heath which is located in the U.S.
Chris listened to our wants and needs for the trip and put together an amazing itinerary. Everything went smoothly, and it was such a complete luxury not to worry about all the minutiae during the planning and the journey. I highly recommend working with a safari expert no matter what your budget as it will save you MUCH time and headache.
Piper and Heath took great care of us every step of the way, even providing lightweight monogrammed rolling duffel bags for each of us! I cannot recommend them enough — take a look at their numerous safari itineraries in all budgets here.